By Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D.
For several Stop It Now! projects worldwide 2022 is a festive year. This year, Stop it Now! US is celebrating its 30th anniversary, Stop it Now! the Netherlands its 10th and Stop it Now! Flanders it's 5th.
On May 19, Stop it Now! Flanders organized a symposium for practitioners to mark this milestone. As the coordinator and founder of the Flemish branch, Minne De Boeck stated in her introduction: It has been a long and winding road, but all the ups and downs have finally brought them to where they are today, a recognized organization committed to the prevention of child abuse and exploitation. To illustrate, from 2017 until 2021 1913 people contacted the helpline with on average 34 contacts per month. Of those who contacted them, 48% were worried about their own behavior and/or sexual interests, 19% were worried about someone else’s behavior and/or sexual interests and 10% were professionals. Even many more people are finding their way to the website (in 2021: 33.523), where there is a lot of information made available for the three target groups, ranging from self-help modules to tools on how to address concerns about someone's behaviour. In short, Stop it Now! Flanders has achieved a great deal in five years and clearly had reason to put its organization in the spotlight.
During the symposium, specific aspects of the functioning of Stop it Now! Flanders and Stop it Now! the Netherlands were illustrated. Wouter Wanzeele, Vincent Lambrecht, and Jeroen Heylen, all therapists and staff members of Stop it Now! Flanders explained how support via chat or telephone works in practice. They also illustrated this with a concrete case. This session not only gave us a good view of how things work behind the scenes but also illustrated how important the cooperation between Stop It Now! and, for example, specialized outpatient services is. The coordination of these services does not always appear to be as straightforward as it could be and raises important (ethical) questions for professionals: For instance, when is it important to lift the anonymity of the client? Is it justifiable that clients referred by Stop it Now! are given priority over all other people seeking help from the same specialized service? These are all important questions for which there is clearly no easy answer.
Ellen Janssen, the coordinator of Stop it Now! The Netherlands explained how they support relatives of persons who have exhibited sexually inappropriate behavior or thoughts towards minors. More specifically, they organize a series of five meetings for partners, parents, family, and other close relatives of MAPs. In these groups, they can find the necessary support and can exchange experiences with each other. Participants also obtain information (e.g., on the possible reasons why some people start watching online images of child sexual abuse or why someone commits abuse), learn how to recognize risk signals and how to set positive goals for themselves and their relatives. Janssen indicates that there is a clear need for such initiatives and that we should not forget these relatives, because they also experience suffering and are faced with countless questions, and very often have the feeling that they are alone in this.
But despite all these achievements and laudable initiatives, the symposium also made it clear that there is still much work to be done. And that became very clear from the start of the symposium. The symposium started with a poignant short film “Painfully Beautiful” by filmmaker Yvonne Nouwen, depicting a testimony of the struggles a man with his sexual interests in minors and his partner encounter every day. A must-see. But Yvonne indicated that it was not easy to start this project because her supervisors showed resistance to the theme. We, the audience, were grateful that she persevered despite these negative reactions.
Alexander F. Schmidt, from the University of Mainz (Germany), highlighted the ongoing stigmatization of sexual interests in children. This stigmatization does not only lead to self-stigmatization and psychosocial problems for the people who experience such interests but paradoxically also increases the risk of sexual offending. We, as professionals, might think yes, but this is observed in the general population, fortunately, professionals think differently. Well, Schmidt shattered this illusion when describing their recent study. They conducted an online survey in 427 Swiss outpatient therapists and the results were sobering: 21% stated that they are not willing to treat non-offending minor-attracted persons (MAPs), and only 16% stated that they were fully willing to provide treatment to these persons. As could be expected, there was even less willing to deal with offending MAPs: Only 9% indicated they would be willing to treat such a client. In addition, a substantial group of therapists had misconceptions about minor attraction and assumed, for example, that such an attraction will eventually lead to child sexual abuse. These results show that it is anything but easy for MAPs to find adequate professional help.
This was in line with our findings regarding help-seeking behaviour in MAPs, which I had the opportunity to present at the symposium. Of our 163 participants, only 40% had ever sought help. These people also indicated that they found this search for help (very) difficult. They turned out to seek help primarily via informative websites about pedophilia, from friends and family, and from the helpline Stop it Now!. Those who did not (yet) seek help were, among other things, afraid of the consequences of their disclosure; even with the anonymous helpline Stop it Now! Flanders, they had their doubts: they did not believe it was anonymous and feared that the helpline would pass on all information to the police.
All these problems were also acknowledged by Debby Versteege, a psychosocial therapist, who counsels clients with pedophilic interests. She is also a volunteer counselor for the website www.pedofilie.nl where she has a supporting role during for instance the group chats. She described how she deals with these clients, how she tries to increase their psychological flexibility, and - unfortunately - what resistance she encounters from her colleagues, colleagues who regularly express quite wrong and stigmatizing ideas about pedophilia and are not willing to work with MAPs. Versteege had invited for her session, Gabriël Levy. Gabriël describes himself as a non-offending MAP and has been working as a volunteer with the aforementioned website for years. It was striking that all questions from the audience after this session were addressed to him. This clearly shows that professionals, even when working with MAPs, have many questions of their own and that it is so important that we not only talk about MAPs but first and foremost with them if we are to fully understand and adequately address their experience and their concerns.
Our fellow blogger and colleague, David S. Prescott, the online session addressed many questions that professionals may have when working with offending and non-offending MAPs. He emphasized how important it is to pursue three goals in treatment: enhancing well-being, enabling self-acceptance and self-compassion, and reducing risks. He eloquently described how he worked and what he focused on in psychotherapy. He emphasized how, among other things, empathy and a non-judgmental attitude are of immense importance if a therapeutic relationship is to develop and if counselling is to lead to positive results. He also did not shy away from taboo subjects such as (chemical) castration and lie detection. What was clearly appreciated by the audience was not only the content of his lecture but also the fact that he spoke mainly from his own clinical experience and shared his own insights with the audience. The online Q&A afterward clearly showed that the audience appreciated the content of his lecture, and also the fact that he spoke mainly from his own clinical experience and shared his own insights with the audience. This shows how important it is to create a platform where professionals can share not only best practices but also their own positive as well as less positive experiences.
The symposium made clear what Stop it Now! Flanders achieved this in a relatively short time thanks to the efforts of all those actively involved and the partner services of the helpline. Yet, it also made it painfully clear that a lot still needs to be done and that we should initially dare to take a critical look at our own attitudes and knowledge about MAPs and of those of our fellow professionals. The organizers were rightly pleased with the turnout of more than 100 people. But the question it raises for me is: How can we effectively reach all those other professionals who clearly have misconceptions and exhibit negative attitudes? How can we avoid that we only preach to the choir? It is obvious there is a need to include this topic in the relevant training programs at for instance colleges and universities. But will that be enough? Stop it Now! Flanders clearly takes its responsibility in this regard and beyond. But it needs all of us to achieve its important objectives. So, let’s put our shoulders together under Stop it Now! Flanders (and similar projects worldwide) to make sure that they can further optimize and expand their important initiatives, and that they can blow out 10 candles in 2027.